Conditioning and learning have been core topics in psychology since the turn of the 20th century and are aligned with the transformation of associative learning concepts. Therefore, familiarity with this area of learning is critical to an advanced education in psychology, as well as a more developed understanding of behaviorism and its evolution. For this section of the chapter, we will discuss conditioning. Section 1.4 will explore how conditioning is then applied in the field of learning. There are two types of conditioning: classical and operant. Though both types have an associative property, there are also clear differences between the two. Classical conditioning involves repeatedly pairing two stimuli so that eventually one of the stimuli prompts an involuntary response that previously the other caused on its own. Think of the classic example of Pavlov’s dog: Repeatedly pairing food with a tone eventually caused, or conditioned, the dog to salivate at the tone alone.
In contrast, operant conditioning (also referred to as instrumental conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning) introduces consequences to the associative relationship between stimuli and responses. Rather than using different stimuli to provoke the same, involuntary response, different stimuli are used to prompt or support the desired, voluntary response, which may involve the confirmation or discouragement of a behavior. In Figure 1.3, for example, two types of reinforcement (positive and negative) are used to maintain the desired response, and two types of punishment (again, positive and negative) are used to change the behavior. In this case, the child being quiet at the physician’s office is the desired behavior.
Operant conditioning includes using different stimuli to provoke a specific, desired response rather than provoking the same involuntary response, such as in classical conditioning.
An example scenario—a child waiting in a physician’s office—is used to demonstrate positive and negative reinforcement (at the top) and positive and negative punishment (at the bottom). If the child sits quietly while waiting in the physician’s office, then a parent could positively reinforce this behavior by offering a reward (TV time) or negatively reinforce this behavior by removing an unwanted action (chores). Both reinforcements result in the desired behavior (sitting quietly in a professional environment), and the next time the child is likely to repeat the desired behavior. If the child does not sit quietly in the physician’s office, then a parent could positively punish this behavior by adding to an unwanted task (extra chores) or negatively punish this behavior by removing a reward (no TV time). Both punishments result in improvement of the desired behavior (sitting quietly in a professional environment) when the child encounters the situation again.